By: Chari Elam
I can’t tell you how many seasoned beekeepers I’ve talked to that whisper quietly so no one will hear: “I get into my hives, and it never looks like it’s supposed to, and as I look, I get confused at what I’m seeing and what to do with what I’m seeing!” Does that sound like you? C’mon… admit it! We’ve ALL been there! There is good news for you though – you WILL get it! It’s takes a bit of practice, but you will get it! Let me simplify the aspects of a hive inspection by starting with “what” they are and “when” we do them.
There are 2 different types of hive inspections:
- Hive Check: Bi-weekly (except for Winter months, then monthly) – You only pull a few frames to verify the queen is laying and resources (Honey/Nectar/Pollen) are available in the quantity required at the time. *Note: If issues are found, this hive check should turn into a hive inspection and problems resolved.
- Hive Inspection: Seasonal (February – spring buildup, May – prior to supering, August – Dearth stress time for our bees, and November – before overwintering). This is pulling most frames and inspecting each of them thoroughly for any issues – Can include requeening and/or splits. Perform Varroa Test (possibly treat if needed), make space adjustments, frame manipulation (equalizing between different boxes), and overall correction of any issues if found.
Regardless of whether you are just checking your hives or doing a full-on “hive dive,” the same principles apply.
You are looking for:
- Frames of Brood
- Eggs & larva (aka, Queen present and laying)
- Frames of honey/stores (Do I feed or not?)
- Pollen in hive (Do I supplement or not?)
- Well-fed brood (wet/plenty of milky liquid in with developing larvae)
- Space – too little or too much
- Brood disease or evidence of Varroa mites
- Consider running 9 frames instead of 10 in a 10-frame box. This makes hive inspections much easier.
- Remove 1 outer (honey) frame before you start your inspection.
- Take only 1 frame out at a time while inspecting the hive, starting with the one closest to you.
- Quickly scan for the queen. If she is there, continue to inspect the frame being really careful not to damage her.
- As you move through the box, quickly look for the components mentioned earlier… brood, stores, and pest or diseases.
- If issues are found such as inferior brood pattern, brood disease, or anything you question – take a quick photo of it with your phone and note the frame on which it is located. This will be homework for you after you have finished. Work your most aggressive hive last.
The most important thing to remember - If you see something wrong, research the solution. If you are unable to come to a good solution, contact us! That’s where your photos can come in very handy. What’s the old saying? A picture is worth a thousand words! Same holds true in beekeeping!
Space is often the most overlooked, under adjusted aspect of management. The key to knowing whether or not a hive's space needs adjusting is based on these points:
- Are they in population growth? (February – July) – Running out of space will cause swarms. Add box(es) when 80% capacity has been reached or split. Never add boxes after a nectar flow (after July) unless you will be feeding heavily. This will ensure your colony continues to grow. *Note – adding additional boxes past late summer will not likely fill enough to remain through winter regardless.
- Population decline/dormant (August – January) – Too much space can cause pests to overtake a colony (i.e., Small Hive Beetles or Wax Moths). Robbing can also be an issue with weaker colonies.
Condition of the hive
- Queenless for a period of time could have reduced populations to less than a number of bees that can defend a box.
- Varroa Mite infestation can cause reduced populations.
- Health – lack of consistent nutrition (starving)
The Average Seasonal Hive
Early Spring (late February – April)
- Little stored honey left from overwintering.
- Some nectar and pollen around the brood nest, probably beekeeper generated supplemental feeding.
- Population increasing quickly, should be football shape and size.
Late Spring/early Summer (May – June/July)
- Honey stores in the brood nest should be re-established.
- Plenty of nectar and pollen around the brood nest.
Population is nearing/at peak and should be the size of a basketball.
Late Summer/Early Fall (August – September)
- Honey stores may be stressed due to Summer dearth - depending on the beekeeper for supplementing.
- Active brood nest has reduced to size of a cantaloupe.
Late Fall/Early Winter (October – November)
- Honey stores should be rebuilt to sufficient overwinter capacity of 30-40 lbs. (3 – 4 frames) in upper deep brood box (due to supplemental feeding during dearth and a fall nectar flow).
- Little stored pollen because it’s not necessary, due to the time of year and the queen not laying.
- Brood is scarce. Population is at dormant stage with little/no brood and remaining steady.
Winter (Nov. – mid Jan.)
- Hive is clustered and living off stored honey of which will be decreasing daily.
- No brood to speak of, depending on your geographic location.
- Population is declining due to aging out.
I've been told this hive inspection sheet I made years ago was very helpful to some as they were mastering hive inspections. Click on the image to print as many copies as you'd like!
It’s very important to manage your bees while respecting the seasonal dynamics of the hive - Taking action when indicators tell you to, and staying on top of inspections. ALL good rules to follow!